I planned to ignore the Philadelphia Magazine article, “Being White In Philly,” because I view the magazine’s fixation on race as a marketing ploy; one that is painfully ironic, given the magazine’s lack of black staffers.
But I am a lifelong Philadelphian who loves this city fiercely, and I can’t sit idly by as Philadelphia is exploited by those for whom racial strife is a means to an end. You see, I’ve seen this city unclothed, and I’ve never flinched at its blemishes. I’ve stood in dark places that strangers aren’t allowed to see, and slept on its desolate streets. I’ve borne witness to the machinations of the city’s most powerful, and stood among the poor and ignored. I’ve done all these things and I love the city more than I would if I only saw the surface.
With that perspective I’ve written for every publication in this city, including Philadelphia magazine. That’s why, when I returned to full time journalism after an eight-year hiatus, I promised to explore various perspectives. I promised to try to make things better. I promised to tell Philadelphia’s truth. For that reason, and that reason alone, I’m responding to “Being White In Philly.” Philadelphia needs to know the whole truth.
When former Philadelphia magazine editor Loren Feldman—a man whom I admire and respect—hired me as a freelancer to write, “SEPTA: The Missing Link to the Suburbs,” in the late 1990s, there were no black writers at the magazine. When former editor Larry Platt tried to hire me as a freelancer for a “race issue” in the mid-2000s, the staffing situation had not changed. That prompted me to ask him, in front of his managing editor, “How can the magazine write an issue on race when it has no black staffers?”
Some might not understand why that question matters, because their environments are extremely homogenous. But when you’re involved in a search for truth—on matters of race and life in general—a diversity of viewpoints is an advantage, because truth comes in so many forms.
Platt mulled my question for a moment, and over a lunch of grilled chicken sandwiches, he told me that the magazine’s failure to hire black writers was a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Initially, the magazine, which had no black readers, felt no need for black writers, and with no black writers, it struggled to attract black readers. Over time, he said, the situation snowballed. I found the explanation to be sorely lacking, and my assessment has proven to be accurate, because the magazine continues its self-imposed and seemingly permanent moratorium on hiring black staffers.
In truth, though, Philadelphia magazine is not the problem. It is just a symptom. As one of thousands of American institutions that do not offer employment opportunities to qualified people of color, the magazine has clearly staked out its position on race, and its assertion that it is somehow trying to start a conversation on the issue is of no consequence. What matters now is how our city responds. I have been sorely disappointed thus far.
I have watched my white colleagues condemn Philadelphia magazine (as if doing so absolves their own newsrooms of their startling lack of diversity) and seen my black colleagues pretend that protests can spur more hiring of black writers. Meanwhile, as we spin our wheels, the city continues to suffer. Even as I write this, Philadelphia boasts a 28 percent poverty rate, 23 schools are scheduled to close, 122,000 ex-offenders have returned to already overburdened communities over the last three years, and an undetermined number of seniors are preparing to be forced out of gentrifying communities by higher property taxes.
We cannot be consumed by the actions of Philadelphia magazine, because in a city that is 44.3 percent black, 12.6 percent Hispanic, and 6.6 percent Asian, Philadelphia magazine does not represent a majority of Philadelphians. Editor Tom McGrath will not be fired, because he is carrying out a longstanding policy. The magazine will not hire black staffers, because the combination of high-end advertisers and suburban readers has worked for them economically. Nothing at Philadelphia magazine is going to change. But my concern, quite frankly, both as a journalist and as a Philadelphian, is not what an out-of-touch magazine will do. My concern is what we, as a city, will do.
Rather than trying to jump out front and lead the parade to condemn those who truly don’t care what we think, we must look within ourselves and ask what we can do to make our city better.
That’s why I returned to journalism. I returned because I believe that real stories about men struggling to overcome the stigma of criminal records, and women grieving the loss of their children to violence, and children facing the imminent closing of their schools, and seniors facing the prospect of losing their homes, are vastly more important than anonymous rants.
I came back to tell those stories, and to tell them for every Philadelphian, regardless of their race.
Find the original article, “Being White in Philly.”